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C. Miglietta, The Mercy of God

Biblical path for the Holy Year of Mercy, with an introduction by H. E. Msgr. Guido Fiandino, Gribaudi, Milan

Why write a book about God’s mercy?

Because God’s mercy is the heart of the Christian Faith. “The mystery of the Christian faith seems to find its synthesis in this word,” Pope Francis has in fact written.

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When God reveals himself to Moses, he manifests himself as “The Lord, the merciful and gracious God” (Ex. 34:6-7; cf. 3:14; 33:19). The Hebrew word that best designates mercy is rehamin, which expresses the bowels, which for the Semites are the seat of the emotions, our “heart”: it is a plural form of réhèm, the maternal breast, the female womb. God loves us like a tender Mother, viscerally, like the most passionate of lovers: we are his joy (Is 62:5)!

It is urgent that we move from the conception of an inflexible Judge God to that of a Merciful and Tender Father. We must get out of that “‘blasphemy’ which is the theology of satisfaction,” as Enzo Bianchi puts it, according to which man’s primordial sin, being offense to infinite God, could only be atoned for by an infinite sacrifice: hence the Son’s death on the cross, in which God is finally appeased by an infinite victim. The terrible and bloody judge God who is presented in this theological vision is not the “Father” God (Mt 6:9), indeed, “Papalino, ‘Papi’ (Rom 8:15), revealed to us by Jesus, the God who ‘feels more joy…over one converted sinner, than over ninety-nine righteous ones’ (Lk 15:7), the ‘Love God’ (1 Jn 4:8).

God creates man only out of love, to have, as the Bible says, a Bride, a Bride. But man, being “other” than God, who is infinite and eternal, is creaturely, finite and mortal. Therefore, at the very moment God makes man, he thinks of the Incarnation of the Son, by which he himself will become finite, to take upon himself the creaturely limit and transfigure it into the divine infinite (Jn. 1). The cross is not the perfidious instrument of a vengeful God, but the supreme revelation of the love of a God who takes upon himself all suffering, all sickness, all death, to divinize all creation. The blood of the Son is not payment of a debt, but God’s liberating action toward mankind.

Is Mercy really for all or only for those who convert?

For Jews, the sadiq, the “righteous,” is one who has harmonious relations with God and with his brothers and sisters, who experiences cordial relations with all. Sedaqah, “righteousness,” is living deep relationships. When we say that “God is just,” we do not mean in the Western sense that God rewards the good and chastises the bad, but that God enters into deep relationships with everyone. So when we say that “God justifies us,” we do not mean that he makes us “righteous,” but that he enters into loving communion with us. And to say that “Christ is our righteousness” is not to see in him the supreme Judge, but the one who puts us in relationship with the Father.

God’s mercy is so overwhelming that it is not reserved for the good, but is for all people, regardless of their virtues and merits. We are faced with a judicial enormity: the acquittal of the offender (Rom. 5:6-8). Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13); and even, “I came not to condemn the world, but to save the world” (Jn 12:47; 6:39).

But if God is so merciful to all, why does the Church speak of purgatory and hell?

Many people today see purgatory as a kind of “extra time” that God grants after death to those who rejected Him in life, to give them a further chance for conversion. But what about hell? The doctrine, advocated by many Fathers, of “apocatastasis,” or “restoration” or “reintegration,” which finds its biblical foundation in those texts that proclaim that, at the end of time, “all will have been submitted to the Son…, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:27-28; cf. Col. 1:19-20), affirmed that hell is a temporary reality, and eventually there will be reconciliation for all, including demons. However, this doctrine was condemned by various Councils. According to the Church, therefore, there is a theoretical possibility that man says a permanent “no” to God and thus, by turning away forever from Him, the source of joy and life, finds himself in that reality of unhappiness and death that we call “hell.” But practically is it possible for man to permanently reject such a lovable, such a fascinating God? There have always been two lines of answers in the Church. On one side are the “justicialists,” who claim that hell is filled with the many wicked and violent people who infest the earth. On the other side are the so-called “merciful” ones, who claim that yes hell exists, but that it is probably empty, because it is really difficult for man to reject God with full warning and deliberate consent: often those who oppose God do so because they have had a distorted view of him or a bad testimony from believers, and therefore their personal responsibility is limited (Lk 23:34).

What is the meaning of talking about “sin” today?

In Latin peccatum means an infraction of a community norm that merits penance, punishment by an authority (the ruler, the magistrate, the parents…). But in Greek the word is amartìa, which essentially means “to miss the mark.” Also in Hebrew, the word that usually expresses sin is chatàʼ, which means “to miss a target,” “to take a wrong turn.” In Jd 20:16 chatàʼ is used to describe the benighted slingers who with their slingshots did not miss even a hair-thin target. The true biblical meaning of sin, then, is not the transgression of a precept, but is the failure to reach the target, the goal of our actions, that is, the fullness of our lives. God gives us the commandments not to test us, but to show us what our happiness is. It is this that is made clear in the account of the first transgression: if men want to “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17), that is, to decide for themselves what they consider “good, acceptable and desirable” (Gen. 3:6), they will go toward suffering and death. If they trust God instead, they will have life. Sin is believing that our plans, our choices, can be better than what God the Father, who loves us madly, has planned for us. The so-called “theology of the two ways” since the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 28; 30) reminds us that God is happiness, he is joy, fullness, life: to stand in God’s way is to experience our fulfillment and peace; to turn away from him, on the other hand, is to set out on paths of sadness, anguish, emptiness, death. When I sin, I do not “offend” God, but I do harm to myself.

What does “convert” mean?

In Hebrew, the word teshuvàh, “conversion,” comes from the verb shùb, which means “to retrace one’s steps”: it indicates a radical change, a “U-turn” of one’s life. In Greek, “conversion” is metànoia, which comes from mèta, “to change,” and noùs, the thought, the mindset: it therefore means to change one’s head, the way one thinks. To convert is to return to the path of one’s own happiness and fulfillment. But it is not to turn to a new ethic, but to a Person: it means to adhere to Jesus, to become his disciples, his friends, his intimates. “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15): Jesus is the Joyful News, our happiness (Mark 1:1).

Does God always forgive?

In the Apostolic Symbol we proclaim, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” “For-giving” is the verb “to give” in the superlative. Since God is Love, is free gift, God’s highest expression is forgiveness (Sir 2:18). His ability to forgive manifests to us how extraordinary, wonderful, amazing the biblical God is. We must scrap the false images of God we carry within us, often borrowed from philosophical speculations, in order to adhere to the amazing newness of the God of the Bible.

First of all, the God Jesus reveals to us is not just: according to our concept of justice, God should in fact punish sinners: instead, God never chastises, but always forgives, because Love “covers everything, believes everything, hopes everything, endures everything” (1 Cor. 13:7).

God then not only forgives but forgets our sins (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 43:25): Scripture says that our sins are “cast into the depths of the sea” (Mi 7:19), that they will be “dissipated as cloud and as cloud” (Isa. 44:22), that they will become “white as snow and as wool” (Isa. 1:18). Let us therefore free ourselves from a pagan vision of a God who will ask us to account for our faults at the end of life: for he, the Bible tells us, forgets them completely! He will see us all “holy and spotless” (Eph. 1:4)! The parable that tells that those who have labored just one hour in the Lord’s vineyard have the same reward as those who have labored twelve hours there (Mt 20:1-12), affirms that in Paradise there will therefore be no meritocracy: it will be an endless feast for all, without distinction! The conclusion of the passage summarizes God’s logic of mercy: “So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:16). God wants us all to be first: his immense love cannot stand for anyone to be in the second row, to feel less fulfilled, to have less happiness, to regret not having been better.

It is then striking how God in Scripture never demands that man ask him for forgiveness: he asks yes for conversion, that is, for man to return to the path of his own fulfillment and happiness, but never for us to apologize to him. His love is such that he is not even offended by our sins, like a father or mother who never feels outraged by the mistakes of their children, or a grandfather by the tides of his grandchild, but rather suffers because his son or grandson has taken bad paths, of unhappiness and abjection. That is why, in the parable of the prodigal son, the Father does not even want to hear the spiel of apologies that the son has prepared, but moved immediately explodes with him in the joy of embrace and restores totally and in superabundance the dignity that the son had lost (Lk 15:11-32). If God in the Bible never demands that we ask his forgiveness, he does, however, want us to know how to apologize to our brothers and sisters, to be reconciled with them, like every Father who yearns for his children to live in peace with one another (Mt 6:10). God’s suffering, his displeasure, is our lack of bliss, and not the affront to him. To such lengths does the greatness of his Love go!

What does it mean, “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36)?

The Christian, inundated with God’s Mercy, is called to overflow from it to his brothers and sisters. Being merciful is not an ethical imperative, but arises from our call to imitatio Dei, to seek to be like God (Lk 6:36). The Christian is to be truly an alter Christus, another Jesus (1 Pet. 2:21), pouring out divine Mercy on everyone, especially, like Jesus, on the poor, the discarded, the oppressed. Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy” (Mt 5:7): to the merciful, Jesus promises nothing but what they already experience: mercy. Mercy is the fullness of God and humans. The merciful are already living the very life of God.

In his book he points out that God’s Mercy extends to all of Creation. So even to animals, plants, things?

We all always contemplate God’s wonderful mercy for all people, but we often forget that it extends to all creatures, to the whole animal, plant and mineral world. Our view, in the religious field, is often anthropocentric, but the texts of the Bible, while emphasizing man’s special position in creation, have a cosmological dimension.

The creation of the whole world is God’s first work of mercy. Pope Francis writes, “Creation belongs to the order of love… Every creature is the object of the Father’s tenderness, which assigns it a place in the world. Even the ephemeral life of the most insignificant being is the object of his love, and in those few seconds of existence, he surrounds it with his affection” (Laudato si’, no. 77).

God not only created the world out of love, but continually makes it subsist through his rùah, his Spirit (Sl 104:29-30). Nature has value in itself because it is the locus of the presence of God’s Spirit, who “fills the universe” (Wis 12:1; 1:7). The Spirit is ubique diffusus, transfusus et circumfusus, as the Church Fathers said. “In every creature dwells his life-giving Spirit” (Pope Francis, Laudato si’, no. 88). An Eastern poem expresses it well, “The Spirit sleeps in the stone, dreams in the flower, wakes up in the animal and knows he is awake in the human being.” We are dealing not with pantheism but with “pan – en – theism,” that is, the permanent presence of the Spirit in all things.

God’s providence for creation is also expressed in the daily provision of nourishment for all his creatures (Job 38:39; Sl 136:25), as Jesus also reminds us (Mt 6:26, 28-29).

Following God’s example, the believer will be merciful to all creation (Pr 12:10; Gl 1:19-20). Of Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano writes: “His charity was extended with a brother’s heart not only to men tried by need, but also to animals without speech, to reptiles, to birds, to all sensible and insensible creatures.” Wonderful is the so-called prayer of Isaac the Syrian: “What is mercy of heart? It is the burning love for the whole creation, for humans, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created being.”

But can one think of a salvation for the whole cosmos?

The covenant God makes with Noah extends to all animals (Gen. 9:8-11, 16). The Psalmist proclaims, “Men and beasts you save, O Lord” (Sl 36:7). Isaiah states that when the Messiah comes, the paradisiacal situation prophesied in Genesis will be fulfilled, in which ferocious and domesticated animals will live in peace with each other and with men (Is 11:6-8; cf. Mk 1:12-13). Are these just ways of saying that the Messiah will bring cosmic peace, or can we also read into these passages a kind of ultimate bliss for animals? Above all, it is Paul who envisions a redemption for all creatures: “For the eager expectation (apokaradokìa) of creation is stretched out toward the revelation of the sons of God…, and cherishes the hope that she too will be delivered from the bondage of corruption, to enter into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God” (Rom 8:17-24).

If Christ’s incarnation fulfills God’s creationist plan, all creation, thus also animals, plants, and rocks, find redemption in him: “He has made known to us the mystery of his will…: that is, the plan to recapitulate in Christ all things, those in heaven as well as those on earth” (Eph. 1:3-12). Sometimes to express this mystery we speak of “new heavens and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). The discourse is wide open. But it would seem certain, on the basis of Scripture, that all of creation, not only humanity, and not only the animal world, but also the plant and mineral world, are reached by the salvation that is accomplished in Christ.

Thank you for your helpfulness!


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